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Derasha Parshat Vayera

11/16/2023 05:22:08 PM


When I walked into Yeshiva, I could not study the Akeida enough.  I had a Chavrusa in it, I read about it.  It came up constantly.  But at a certain point, I became reluctant to engage with it.  I rarely have spoken about it in Shul.  What changed?  When a person has children, one hears the story differently.  It becomes more sensitive territory.  But sometimes one must speak about it.

The language of Nisayon, or test, catches the attention of the Midrash.  We translate it as “test” but it is also related to the language to “lift up.”  The fact that it is associated specifically with Avraham is also noteworthy to the Midrash.  Hashem tests the righteous, and not the wicked.  The wicked will perform on a test like many of us -- as the morning Beracha says, a Nisayon will become a Bizayon, an embarrassment.  But the righteous can pass the test.  

The Midrash shows this with three examples:

  1. First, the Midrash says that it is like someone who handles flax.  If the flax is weak, it will just break if it is combed.  But good flax can be combed, and combing will make it stronger.  
  2. Or it is like a potter.  Which pots does he use to show off how strong they are?  The strongest, obviously, because they can withstand a few knocks and demonstrate how durable they are.  
  3. Or like a farmer who has to plow wild and overgrown land to make it arable.  He uses his strongest steer to plow that land.  Anything weaker will fail.


The Midrash uses three examples because a test can have three purposes.  First, it could be for the sake of the Tzadik, to strengthen him, like the flax.  He is lifted, from the language of Nisa, by the test.  

Or a test is sometimes for the observer so that they will see how durable the pottery  is.  The word Nisayin is connected to Ness, a flag, which one runs up the pole so that all can see it.  

Or a test is done so that it can accomplish a difficult task the world needs to have done.  The world is lifted in such a case, like the field which goes from useless to arable.  

Avraham is certainly strengthened by all of his tests.  Each contributes to his spiritual power until he is able to contemplate the Akeida.  But he also shows the world a level of devotion which sets a standard.  This is why there are opinions that say that all of the tests appear in the Torah.  They have to be publicized because they are all to show something to the world.  Finally, it is a different world after these tests.  Avraham has expanded the sense of what devotion is. 

The test before Israel now involves all three aspects.  The whole world is watching,  experiencing a clarifying moment.   

And the test is also for Israel itself.  An existential attack on Israel -- many are calling this the second War of Independence -- confronts us all with how deeply this matters.  If one’s attachment to Israel, to the Jewish people, is superficial, that won’t do now.  It’s time to decide: Does Judaism mean something significant?  Perhaps it has profound things to say to us about Hashem, about morality, about proper living.  Or perhaps we are too far away from it.  

And it needs the world to see what a brilliant and united -- an enduring -- nation can accomplish.  Can it change the 

Everyone thinks about Avraham Avinu’s state of mind during the Akeida.  What was he thinking?  How was he processing what was happening?    

To this there are also three basic approaches.  One sees him as dutifully focused.  This is the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s view when he calls him a Knight of Faith.  He undertakes his duty without emotion, with just a dogged sense of what he must do.

Another view sees Avraham in tears.  He is consumed by the sadness of waiting this long for a child who would now never see children of his own.  

The final view sees Avraham as joyful.  He is rejoicing in carrying out Hashem’s will, in being chosen to carry out Hashem’s will.    

Each of these opinions is wrong.  But only because they each say that he was only  dutiful, or he was only crying, or he was only joyous.  The Midrash says he was all three.  That is what people are -- complex.  They are balancing a mixture.  They can be scared, they can be confident, they can be joyous, and often they are all of those things all at the same time.

I would say that these three even line up with what we said about tests in general.   As he thinks about his own growth, Avraham has tears.  As he thinks about what he  can show the world, he feels duty.  But as he thinks about the steps the world is taking forward, he feels joy.  

The Jewish people are being called on now to clarify something.  The world can now contemplate the bankruptcy of a point of view which sees oppressed and oppressor as a zero sum game, like a football game between a favorite and an underdog (G-d help us).    

We are all being called on to make it real.  It’s not time for something superficial.  It has to be from one’s kishkes.  There has to be learning which is absorbed, and Davening which comes from deep inside.

I spoke to Eitan Horowitz for a half hour a couple of weeks ago.  He lived in Palo Alto twice, once when he brought his whole family here for two years, and then again when he was in the East Bay for a week out of every month and he came here for Shabbatot.  Eitan is a volunteer police officer in Israel in addition to whatever he’s doing for Parnassa.  He lives in Maale Adumim but he’s in Ashkelon these days.  About a quarter of the rockets come to Ashkelon, so he’s there to deal with the aftermath.  

He told me that he’s been to the front.  He went to deliver something.  Very intense, he said.  Rockets going one way and jets going the other.  Suddenly, a jeep pulls up and a woman gets out.  She’s covering her hair, and he’s wondering what this woman is doing here.  It ends up that she was brought to the border because she just got married and her husband is there.  They are in Sheva Berachot.  The unit rejoiced with them.  

Everyone there knows that life and death are in the balance.  But they rejoice too, because life demands a complex mix.  Those soldiers are scared, but they also know that they are fighting for continuity.  That’s what this war is about, and that’s what that couple is about.  It’s all about taking the world closer to its goals.  


Tue, June 25 2024 19 Sivan 5784